House of 1,000 Animals August 1970 Lake Placid, NY. Kodachrome slide from the collection of Joe Geronimo.
With the invention of the automobile and Henry Ford’s mass production of the Model T, a new type of tourist was created, freed by the motorcar to explore at will. Facilities had to be invented to serve these happy wanderers, and a new generation of business owners realized that the middle-class nomads passing in front of their properties were a potential source of income. The most essential services for tourists provided gas, food and lodging. But in this explosion of roadside commerce, there was a fourth type of establishment, which had nothing whatsoever to do with fulfilling basic needs. A wide variety of tourist attractions were conceived as a way to divert travelers. They evolved not only to amuse the children in the back seat, but also to seduce the children living within the adults in the front seat. Roadside attractions were also important to travelers needing to stretch their legs, relax for a while, use the very necessary rest-room facilities, or just to have some fun.
The highway havens in the North Country were and are a microcosm of such marvels developed across the United States. Although they were condemned by many as being in bad taste or condoned by others as kitsch, a variety of destinations arose and thrived. The beginnings of the phenomenon are shrouded in the mists of the past, and just how these businesses began to appear is at best a matter of conjecture.
One theory is that some people involved in serving up travelers’ essentials added amusement facilities as a means of drawing attention and income and to distinguish themselves from competitors. One Adirondack example was a black bear kept at an auto camp near North Hudson in the 1920s. The bear was trained to guzzle bottles of soda pop purchased by passersby, and sometimes a man would wrestle the beast before the assembled throngs.
The earliest stand-alone tourist diversions in the region, as in many other parts of the country, began as operations devoted to raising animals for clothing and decorative items. Although it’s hard to imagine now, there was an ostrich farm in Saratoga Springs in the first decades of this century. Such farms of gigantic birds were commonplace in California, Texas and Florida, and the plumage was harvested to produce feather boas in various colors as well as pompoms, fans and novelties, all sold in shops on the premises.
But the Florida Ostrich Farm in Jacksonville—taking a cue perhaps from visitors who migrated with the seasons—launched a summer branch in Saratoga on Ballston Avenue. People became so fascinated by these creatures, which could weigh up to four hundred pounds, that the business was opened so that curious guests could gawk at chicks hatching from gigantic eggs; ride behind big ones in sulkies or up on their backs; ooh and aah as birds swallowed oranges whole, which would then be seen as round objects descending stomachward; or, in what was described as a “painless operation,” observe plumes being plucked. Among Saratoga’s most famous ostriches were one behemoth named “Prince of Wales,” and another, “Oliver W,” billed as “positively the only thoroughly harness-broken ostrich in America today.” Ostrich ranches, though, went the way of feather boas and disappeared from the American landscape.
Joseph S. Sterling, born in New Jersey in 1878—and who moved to Alaska in 1904, where he prospected for gold, ran a steamship line and operated trading posts—came up with the idea of raising captive animals for fur. He drifted back East, started a silver-fox farm in Schuyler Falls, New York, in 1915, and in 1920 established an exhibition farm at Ausable Chasm. The very next year Sterling opened another show farm in Lake Placid. The Lake Placid location, on Route 86, became the area’s major tourist attraction in the 1930s, and survived until 1976.
Out-of-towners were fascinated by Sterling’s foxes, mink, beavers, Hudson seals and so-called “wolf raccoons,” and he boasted in the early 1930s that visitors could “See 50 Alive.” Over the years, other species were added as the facility evolved into the Sterling Alaska Fur and Game Farm, popularly known as the “Home of 1000 Animals.” Many of the inhabitants were trained to perform tricks: bears did stunts in exchange for treats; “Peppy and Mike” starred in a daily chimp show; and children could ride llamas. Joseph Sterling died in 1959, but his wife, Martha, carried on, expanding and modernizing the facility.
(Note): The above text was taken from Adirondack Life ” Once upon a time in the Adirondacks, when theme parks ruled the roadside” by John Margolies.
The buildings still exist, with the main building on Saranac Ave. at the intersection, right before Whiteface Inn Lane. Sadly it is now an antique store.